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North America’s biggest city is running out of water

North America’s biggest city is running out of water

Mexico City is staring down a water crisis. It won’t be the last city to do so.

A boat stranded on the dry floor of the Miguel Alemán dam on February 28, 2024, in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.
Mexico City is being threatened by a water crisis after the main reservoirs remain under 40 percent of their full capacity due to low rainfall, geography, and lack of infrastructure.
 Hector Vivas/Getty Images.

Mexico City is parched.

After abysmally low amounts of rainfall over the last few years, the reservoirs of the Cutzamala water system that supplies over 20 percent of the Mexican capital’s 22 million residents’ usable water are running out.

“If it doesn’t start raining soon, as it is supposed to, these [reservoirs] will run out of water by the end of June,” Oscar Ocampo, a public policy researcher on the environment, water, and energy, told my colleagues over on the Today, Explained podcast.

Already, some households receive unusably contaminated water; at times, others receive none at all. It’s stoking tensions over obvious inequities: Who gets water and who doesn’t?

The crisis is also leading Mexico City to siphon more from the underground aquifers on which the city sits, a decision that’s not just unsustainable without replenishment but also causes the ground to sink — at a rate of almost five inches each year, Ocampo said.

While many factors that led to this moment might be specific to Mexico City, or CDMX (including the Spanish colonists’ decision hundreds of years ago to drain the lake on which the city originally sat), or this moment in time (see: El Niño exacerbating droughts), the bigger issue is not.

Bogotá, Colombia, is rationing water amid a drought that has pushed reservoirs to “historically low” levels. And you might remember Cape Town staring down its own Day Zero crisis in 2018. A few years earlier, Sao Paulo, Brazil confronted a similar situation.

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